José Manuel Fernandes
guardian.co.uk, Friday 25 March 2011
The discussions had barely started on Wednesday night when the then prime minister, José Sócrates, made an abrupt exit from a crucial meeting at the Portuguese parliament, running down the stairs of the building in order to escape the reporters waiting for him at the bottom. Like everyone else in the country, the press had wanted to know why he was so disrespectful towards the representatives of the nation. The TV images of this hasty escape have already become iconic: after having his austerity package rejected, Sócrates soon announced his resignation, plunging Portugal – and Europe – deep into political crisis.
On the streets, Sócrates’s resignation was greeted with a sigh of relief. For many, the prime minister has come to embody the ills of our country and the sins of our political leaders. On 12 March, Portugal saw the largest national demonstrations in decades, when a Facebook appeal led to hundreds of thousands of people marching peacefully in Lisbon and Porto against rising unemployment and the shrinking of wages and pensions. There’s a distinct feeling of hopelessness in the air: never before has Portugal had so many unemployed. People have been leaving the country in droves, and as usual it is those we need most, the young with the best qualifications, who are at the front of the queue.
The national debt is at its highest in more than a century. The last time the country saw anything resembling economic growth was back in 2000. Everywhere there is a fear that, after a lost decade, there might come yet another. Portugal appears to be undergoing a process of economic decay. Many worry that the country will fail in its ambition to catch up with the most developed nations in Europe.
Deep down, Portugal feels it has been playing catch-up for the last two centuries. After the loss of Brazil in 1820, and the failure to follow up on the promise of the industrial revolution, intellectuals began to speak of an “under-developed” Portugal – to contrast with the developed country of the previous centuries. It was around the same time that we saw the rise of “Sebastianismo” in Portuguese culture – that is, the longing for the reawakening of a national saviour figure, as the last ruler of the “golden dynasty”, King Sebastian, had been, a sentiment kept alive by writers such as the 20th-century poet Fernando Pessoa.
For a while it looked as if the sleeping king had indeed returned. After entering the European union in 1986, several years of strong economic growth created a vision of a new and developed Portugal. That turned out to be an illusion.
Sócrates never promised to be anything like a new King Sebastian – the WikiLeaks cables paint a portrait of a leader who doesn’t like sharing power and hates negotiations. But he appeared to many at least a more pleasant option than his opponents. In the 2009 election campaign, Sócrates’s Socialist party faced a centre-right PSD party headed by an ex-finance minister known for her austerity measures, and had accordingly based their campaign on promises of increased public spending. It worked, but only just: Portugal entered the sovereign debt crisis with the only minority government in Europe.
The dust of the electoral fray had hardly settled when the Portuguese were confronted with a reality quite different from the one presented by Sócrates. The 2009 budget deficit, reported to Brussels in September as 5.6%, turned out to be 9.3%. Political moves such as the Socialist party’s decision to increase public servants’ pay and benefits had backfired.
In 2010 the government was forced to implement measures contrary to the populist promises made in the election campaign. The country endured the failure of successive plans for stability and growth, each time overtaken by a darker reality than that recognised by Sócrates. Offers of collaboration from the opposition were shunned – the picture that emerged was of a politician who is only satisfied when he sees his opponents kneeling in surrender.
The final straw came when the government was forced, after a technical visit to Portugal by the European commission and the Central Bank committee, to introduce new austerity measures. Relations had deteriorated beyond repair, not just between Sócrates and the current PSD leader, Pedro Passos Coelho, but also between prime minister, parliament and the president of the republic.
The Portuguese now live in a climate of decaying politics and growing disregard for the rules of democracy. Not only did half the voters abstain in the presidential elections in January, a serious flaw in the registration system also meant that thousands who wanted to vote couldn’t. No single politician has claimed responsibility for this. This month the press revealed the payment of €72,000 in extra fees to a minister’s wife against the advice of the civil service. Again, no one resigned.
Now the more obvious historical parallel is not the golden era, but 1890, when Portugal became the first European country to go bankrupt. As every Portuguese citizen knows, the political turmoil that followed only came to an end in 1926, with a military coup and the rise of António de Oliveira Salazar’s far-right party.